Reintegrating ex-fighters is about more than the ex-fighters

A few years back, the universally acknowledged truth in peacebuilding was that, for a country to move from a peace agreement on paper into a real and sustainable peace process, the fighters had to disarm, demobilise and re-integrate – DDR. It was high priority on the ground, backed by a deal of international activity to learn lessons and sort out best practice. Lately, the energy seems to have drained out of DDR. It is time to renew it. 

Of turf and worse

The EU and many government donors of overseas aid don’t get closely involved in DDR. They prefer instead to put their money into Multi-Donor Trust Funds, which for DDR are generally run either by the World Bank or by the UN Development Programme.

The cognoscenti of this sort of thing discern more than a whiff of turf rivalry between the two global bodies. But there is more than bureaucratic politics at stake here.

Back in December 2006 when the DDR tide was at its peak, the EU agreed a concept and the UN published its Integrated DDR Standards. But the World Bank, which is doing a lot of DDR work, hasn’t signed up to the Integrated DDR Standards (nor has the EU though it’s willing to consider doing so, and in any case its concept and the IDDRS are pretty closely aligned in key areas). There is, in short, a global divide, a disagreement about the best way to do DDR, even about what DDR actually is and what it is for.

Paying for the guns…

In the autumn of 1995 I paid a visit to Grozny. There was a ceasefire between the Chechen rebels and the Russian government and a disarmament agreement had been signed. For the short while I was there, however, and for some time afterwards, there was an average of 25 armed incidents each night according to the Russian army. Naturally I enquired into this and at the most senior level, a government minister who had spent weeks negotiating the ceasefire and disarmament agreements told me what he understood to have happened:

  • The basis of the agreed disarmament measures was a buy-back programme. Rebels could hand their guns in, no questions asked, and get paid for them.
  • What actually happened was that the rebels handed their guns at the collection centres, got paid, went round the back of the building and used the same money to buy their guns back again at half price.
  • The reason for this two-guns-for-one offer was simply that Russian soldiers weren’t getting wages.

This was an extreme illustration of how buy-back could go wrong.

Another example that has often been cited is of the buy-back in the mid-1990s in Croatia. As well as being criticised for rewarding those who illegally held guns even after the excuse of civil war was over, the programme run by the Croatian government and the UN peace mission was further accused of actually attracting the import of weapons from Serbia and possibly other parts of South-eastern Europe. In similar vein, critics of buy-back in West Africa have noted that in Cote d’Ivoire there was a price of $900 per gun while in Liberia it was only $300. Fighters and traders are thought to have responded in the most obvious way, taking the weapons to wherever they got the better payment.

The problem is that paying for guns creates a market for them, perhaps even an international market, and that distorts the disarmament process.

On top of that a standard criticism of these programmes in countries and regions that may be awash with small arms is that the fighters turn in their old barely working weapons and meanwhile look after their best guns with great care.

…and for the gunmen…

A common pattern is to pay ex-fighters for their weapons and pay them again for agreeing to demobilise. They come with a gun to the cantonment area, surrender it, get the money credited to them, stay for a few weeks for some training in skill to use in civilian life, and then leave and if they go back to the village whence they came, they get a second payment. To my recollection, in Liberia the total an ex-combatant might make for returning to his village was $500.

By contrast, somebody who had fled the war and been in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Monrovia would get a ride home in a truck, some food and basic farming equipment and $5.

Those who neither fled nor fought, meanwhile, got nothing.

Not surprisingly, resentment abounded.

In any case, neither the returned IDPs nor those who had simply hidden themselves during the worst days and then managed to stay put through several years of war necessarily wanted the ex-fighters to come home.

…but not always the women…

A problem that is rarely discussed is that young women are also often part of fighting forces, sometimes carrying guns, sometimes not. But when the definition of a combatant who can be demobilised is a person who turns up with a gun, many women who had been with the armed groups would be unable to prove their identity as combatants. Unable or unwilling to return home or unwelcome once there, one likely destination for them would be the capital or a major town. Once there, with neither job nor home nor family, one likely role is prostitution, perhaps with a disarmed fighter using part of his several hundred dollar pay-out to be a client, or perhaps with an ex-fighter as pimp using the weapons he didn’t surrender to take and hold his urban territory.

…and skimping on reintegration

In the 1990s and the first half of this decade, reintegration was too often an afterthought. Leaders of armed groups who came to the table to discuss ceasefire and peace wanted to look after their followers by getting them a good deal – money for disarming and demobilising. Reintegrating ex-fighters back into society for a normal life was not something either leaders or followers always thought very much about. At the same time, international mediators wanted to get the peace deal sealed so the fighting and killing could end and the torture of that country could stop. That is a huge task and a major achievement ; the problem is that ending the war is not the same as perpetuating the peace.

And then there’s the money issue. At $500 a head, 30,000 armed insurgents from a variety of rebel groups, many with more than one weapon to hand in so they often get a second payment, plus the ‘ghost’ insurgents who turn up (either real ones coming back again and again or young men who didn’t fight but have been able to lay hands on a rusty and mostly useless weapon), and including having to pay for the technical experts, a complex administration system and the costs of storage and disposal – it all adds up to several tens of millions of dollars. 

Worse, it is hard to budget for because there may be no firm knowledge about how many fighters there are at the outset – or at any point. In Liberia in the early stages, so I was told in 2005, the UN mission had to use money they had budgeted for demobilisation on disarmament because there were more fighters and weapons than anticipated. Later I met people involved in the Liberia DDR programme who furiously disputed that the numbers of fighters were particularly high; it was the ‘ghosts’ problem, they said, that threw the budget out of shape. 

Either way, with disarmament draining the demobilisation funds, the reintegration budget was raided to cover demobilisation in the cantonment areas.

Nonetheless, the idea of reintegration has been there for a decade and a half, included as a standard item in peace agreements. It consisted of some weeks of training for ex-combatants in computer skills, tailoring and the like. What regularly did not happen was an economic assessment including the labour market. There was, therefore, no certainty that de-mobilised and trained ex-combatants were returning to civilian life to find a job – and because of resentment and fear in the places where they came from, they might well be unable to find a welcome of any kind.

In short, by paying for disarmament and demobilisation while not putting enough energy or resources into reintegration, one result is to create a pool of young men with no knowledge or experience of civilian life, who have received money but got no job and no home, and who may well have kept their most useful weapons, which they know perfectly well how to use – a reserve army for criminal employment or mobilisation in the next war.

Emphasise the R

The emphasis in Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration has always fallen on the two D’s, and of them on the first one.  But the fact is that disarmament and demobilisation only really make sense if reintegration works. So sacrificing reintegration undermines the whole effort and the apparent willingness to do this accordingly suggests that some of those who manage DDR do not really have a clear sense of what it is about:

  1. It is a means by which people who have been fighters and may have been since they were children make a difficult transition to a new identity, an ordinary every-day identity as citizen, son or daughter, sibling, worker, perhaps eventually husband or wife and parent.
  2. And it is a bridge from armed conflict to the country’s long-term, peaceful development.

If that is what DDR is for, the implication is that whereas DDR programmes, even the ‘R’ component, commonly focus on the ex-fighters, their success requires a much enlarged focus that takes into account the needs of the economy and the interests and well-being of the communities into which ex-fighters may be reintegrating.

Counting weapons handed in, establishing cantonment areas, even setting up training programmes in civilian skills – all these are but technical means to a social transformation that has to be supported by an economic development trajectory.

More than that, if DDR is seen by ordinary citizens of the country as a way of perversely rewarding ex-fighters for the harm they did, there is all too likely to be a collapse in popular support for DDR and for the peace process as a whole. That means the issue is not simply about the social and economic dimensions but is also highly political. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising if some practitioners run away from the more complex aspects.

But it’s also not good enough.

The divide between the World Bank and, broadly speaking, the rest lies exactly here – on the importance of reintegration and on the implications of treating it as seriously as it deserves. The World Bank institutionally prefers the more technical approach – which, given its overall mission, is a touch strange.

Moving forward

If this all seems rather gloomy, let me emphasise that DDR has not stood still for a decade or more. We are not still seeing all the same errors that we saw in the mid-1990s. The approach today is more integrated than it used to be and there is more emphasis in some places on linking DDR to the broader peace process and to longer-term development prospects. Nonetheless errors and deficiencies remain. Because they persist despite fairly wide awareness of them, it seems likely that the reasons for them are not in the actions of those entrusted with DDR programmes but, rather, in the institutional setting within which they work. It is reform of the international institutions that support and carry out DDR that is ultimately where the key to better practice lies.

One gain in recent years has been increased recognition that each place where DDR is implemented is different in important ways. Of course it is possible to learn lessons from one place and programme to another, but no template approach will work and a default mode is out of the question. It has become a cliche to say that one size will not fit all but that doesn’t make it untrue; unfortunately, when truths become truisms their logic is often easier to ignore. In this case, the logic of a tailored approach includes:

  • Nuancing the division of roles and responsibilities and especially the vexed question of who ‘owns’ DDR according to the context, the nature of the conflict and the timing of the programme – sometimes it makes total sense for the government to be in charge but if the government is non-functional the international institutions will need to be more present and more visible;
  • Tailoring to meet different needs in different parts of the country, among different groups  whether their differences are defined by their relationship to the conflict (ex-fighters, returning IDPs, those who stayed put) or by other dividing lines such as ethnicity, gender, age and urban/rural;
  • Facing up to the political elephant in the room and to some conflict parties’ felt imperative to retain sufficient weapons not only for self-protection but to have options available if the peace process goes off track.

The scale of the DDR issue also needs to be grasped in planning DDR programmes. Targeting ex-combatants alone is too narrow; the approach needs to be broader. And a snappy programme of getting the weapons, demobilising the combatants and training them for civilian life for a few weeks before sending them home is a programme that has little prospect of success.

At the same time, it also needs to be understood that part of DDR is very detailed work with individuals and small groups, for it is they who have to transform their identity, and with communities that have been through the deepest and hardest traumas that can be envisaged, because if reintegration is to happen they must accept the ex-fighters. In one of International Alert’s projects in Rwanda, our team have worked with a woman running a small commercial enterprise who has knowingly and as a deliberate act of reconciliation gone into business with the man who killed her husband in the genocide in 1994.

That is a measure of what reintegration means.  

It is not something that can be achieved quickly, through technical means, by the stroke of a pen on a peace agreement, or by focusing only on the fighters.

4 thoughts on “Reintegrating ex-fighters is about more than the ex-fighters

  1. Hi Dan,

    It would be great if you would come and speak to our students- 40 – 60 one Wed lunchtime on a topic of your choice.

    Many are wannabee internationals keen to do good in the world, we would also advertise to our Development Studies folk,

    best wishes,

    Dan Plesch

  2. The right questions are being asked here, and the temptation to go for easy answers is avoided. Guns are indeed tangible, they get people’s attention, and can be counted. But the vital work of reintegration is takes more time and money. It’s complicated, and harder to show straightforward measurable results. No wonder it’s the poor relation.

    To make our efforts to assist reintegration more sustainable, I believe we can learn something from those practices in development which prioritise a participatory approach. Involving all the stakeholders (including communities) in a meaningful way can be difficult and messy. Welcome to the world of reintegration and post-conflict recovery: complex, but worthwhile.

    Walt Kilroy
    Dublin City University

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